So many riders, even the best intentioned ones can ‘get in the way’ of their horse, and it isn’t always in the physical sense of the phrase. I have worked on many horses over the years and witnessed many horse and rider relationships, at all levels of the competitive spectrum. Over my several years of practice, I have seen on occasion how the effects of not only hard hands, heavy seats and ill-fitting tack can affect a horse, but most of all how the expectations of a rider can cause a horse to stress themselves to the point of shutting down, or ‘turning off’ from the horse and rider partnership. Although it is obvious that high-performance horses of any discipline have to face a lot of expectation, it would be unfair to assume that horses at lower levels, not competing for Olympic medals, do not pick up on and internalize the expectations of their riders.
I have observed how the demands of training, and the rigors of the show schedules can challenge the ‘team work’ and communication of even the best horse and rider combinations. Horses that never step a foot into the show ring or onto a trailer can also feel the expectations of their riders from up above them, and even from the ground. As the ‘lead hand’ in the partnership (and some might argue, the more intelligent of the two, which is always debatable), and the one that dictates the scheduling of your lives, it is imperative for the human element to be aware of how your relationship is fairing with your equine partner. Horses can FEEL the stress around them, and they react accordingly. We have been reading articles and opinions for years on the ‘art of communicating’ with our horses, and yet there are still some missing pieces, that perhaps can be found outside of the barn, show ring, and have nothing to do with any discipline or level of competition, but are only to be found within ourselves…the human component of the partnership.
Horses have ‘jobs’, and a very large number of horses need to feel like they have a job to do. This makes them feel like they have a purpose. The job descriptions can range from ‘babysitting’ a pasture mate, to trucking beginners around the schooling ring or out on the trails, to being a consistent school master in the 1.30m jumping ring, to aiming for an Olympic medal while representing their country. The key is be aware if the horse is enjoying their job at any one point in time, as the ‘job expectations’ can vary. Many horses love their job, and it is unfortunately due to physical reasons that they are no longer able to complete their tasks. Chances are, it should be obvious when they are no longer having fun at their current job, but that is often when the expectations of the rider/owner frequently miss the signs that something has changed.
It is a big responsibility being the ‘human element’ of the horse and rider partnership. Take the time, be aware and observe your expectations. Take a breath, and assess yourself before getting in the saddle. Make sure that if a focused training session is what’s in the schedule for that day, that it is coming from a clear headed rider, who has taken their own ‘inventory’, being well aware of how they are feeling before getting on the horse to guide and direct them. Often whether we realize it or not, we do expect a lot of our horses, and ultimately, it’s only fair if they can expect just as much from us.